Chicago school officials said Thursday that they will reopen a shuttered South Side high school which had been slated for closure and was the inspiration for an ongoing 18-day hunger strike by protesters that has drawn national attention.
But the school will be arts-themed — not the green technology and science school community activists have been seeking.
“Our objective was to make the decision that best meets our children’s needs and this plan creates the opportunity for a unique, world-class high school on the South Side,” Chicago Public Schools Chief Executive Forrest Claypool said in a statement.
The school is expected to serve about 550 students and be ready to open in the 2016-2017 school year. In addition to an arts focus, the school will also host an “innovation technology lab” that will be open to students from other schools and the community, officials said.
The decision was a surprise; it was not among the three plans city officials received in response to a request for proposals earlier this year and have been reviewing for months.
The plans under consideration were the science, leadership and technology proposal from the community activists, a bid by a local nonprofit organization to run an arts-themed school for a fee, and a third proposal by a former principal who wanted to open a sports-themed school.
Protesters were taken aback by Thursday’s announcement, and pledged to continue their hunger strike. They won a key objective — the reopening of a neighborhood school for every student in the community. But instead of a green-themed science focus, the city is planning an arts school.
“We of course are glad it’s going to be a neighborhood school,” said Jitu Brown, one of the hunger strikers who has lost 32 pounds since Aug. 17. “We’re deeply concerned this is still the mayor playing the shell game. There was no overwhelming call from the community for an arts school. We want a green technology school. We’re not coming off the strike. Yes, reopening the school is a victory. But the real victory would be listening to the neighborhood’s voice.”
He said protesters were arranging a meeting with city officials.
The decision came as the demonstrations over the fate of the high school in the Bronzeville neighborhood began to attract national attention, and the fight was resonating with activists and labor unions in other cities where school closings had been contentious.
The Chicago strife was also starting to disrupt Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s daily schedule, as he was dogged by protesters. At a public meeting on the city budget Wednesday night, Emanuel had to be hustled from the venue by police, after protesters rushed the stage midway through the session. Hundreds of activists interrupted a similar budget meeting Monday.
Earlier Wednesday, two of the hunger strikers traveled to Washington to ask U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan to intervene and “deliver justice” to students in Chicago.
Chicago Public Schools, facing an estimated $1 billion budget gap, closed Walter H. Dyett High School in June, after years of poor performance and dwindling enrollment. Dyett was the only open-enrollment high school in its catchment area; nearby options include a selective high school, a contract school run by a private operator and a school outside Dyett’s attendance zone.
After community pushback about the closing, city officials said they would consider proposals from private organizations to operate the school for a fee.
Community activists argued that they wanted a publicly managed, traditional school and submitted their plan after consulting with Chicago Botanic Gardens, DuSable Museum and other organizations. They said the school’s location next to a major park offered an opportunity to emphasis science, the environment and green technology.
Dyett is in Bronzeville, a once-vibrant African-American community that was home to a glittery roster of cultural leaders, including musician Louis Armstrong and author Richard Wright. It began to decay after the Great Depression and became notorious for the crime- and drug-ridden Ida B. Wells high-rise public housing complex, which the federal government razed in 2011. Pockets of the neighborhood have begun to gentrify, although stretches remain blighted.
Chicago Public Schools closed nearly 50 schools in 2013, affecting more than 12,000 students. One of the largest mass school closings in the country, it revealed deep racial fissures.
Activists filed complaints of civil rights violations with the U.S. Department of Education, charging that closings of public schools in Chicago, Newark and New Orleans occur in disproportionately large numbers in poor, minority neighborhoods and have a destabilizing effect on communities.
Department officials are still investigating those complaints.